Our fight is not with you

Our fight is not with you…

With many thanks to Managing Editor Lauren Minore for her good faith editorial in last week’s edition of The Rider News, I wish to make a contribution to the continuing dialogue about Westminster Choir College (WCC) and Rider University.

First, let us be abundantly clear. Our fight is not with the students, faculty and staff of Rider University.

Our fight is not about your programs, your facilities, your work ethic, your expertise and your commitment to the university.

Our fight is with the Rider Board of Trustees and the upper administration of the university, including President Gregory Dell’Omo and Provost DonnaJean Fredeen.

I personally have taught on the Lawrenceville campus for four semesters. I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience working with the fine students that have been in my classes. As someone who has worked on both campuses, I can understand from the point of view of some students and professors in Lawrenceville. I understand that those of us in Princeton are acting irrationally, that we should just accept our fate, that our situation is somehow our own fault and that our refusal to relocate is somehow a repudiation of Rider’s quality of programs, its commitment to its university community, the expertise of its faculty and the drive and commitment of its students.

This cannot be further from the truth. Rider University, under previous leadership, has lifted up both the work of students and faculty in Lawrenceville and Princeton. Our fight is not with you.

Imagine, for a second, if the upper administration of Rider University told its Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry (as a part of the college of liberal arts and sciences) that it would be uprooted from its home within a year without any concrete reason why. Then told not to be emotional, that it’s for the betterment of the university as a whole and that they would be relocated to the basement of a dreary building not designed for their curriculum. The faculty offices would become housed in a shabbily remodeled old dorm and hastily scheduled meetings to “inform” the students were guarded by security guards. The students in the program were barred from touring the proposed new facility by a member of the senior administration and more security guards.

Would the department’s enrollment drop? Would the quality of the work of faculty and students decrease? Would the department’s alumni be vocal in protest? Would recruiting become incredibly complex and less effective? Would the worry of capability of the department to continue its vision cause fracturing among everyone involved?

Of course it would.

This is happening to WCC. When our newest building (the Cullen Center) opened in 2014, our enrollment was at capacity. Even in the fall of 2016, right as the administration was underway in their attempt to dismantle our college, our enrollment was approximately 450 students, our dorms were at maximum capacity and one of our choirs had just been nominated for a Grammy. So, why did the administration choose to raid WCC (as part of the Westminster College of the Arts), instead of any other program at Rider University?

There are two reasons…

Reason one, WCC has an endowment of approximately 20 million dollars. This is money, cultivated by our own donors and supporters over decades, given specifically for the ongoing mission of our school. This money is separated from Rider’s overall endowment. But, once the administration succeeds in dissolving WCC, the leftover endowment becomes a part of the university’s general fund, violating the trust and generosity of our alumni, patrons and supporters.

Secondly, WCC occupies 23 acres of extremely valuable land, situated in the middle of a historic Ivy League town that is landlocked and has no room for expansion and they plan to get top dollar for our land. Keep in mind that as our steward, the ownership of our land is more complicated than Rider’s administration and legal team would have us believe. We are not a satellite campus that Rider owns, we are a separate school whom Rider vowed to steward, uphold and continue to cultivate. The land’s history is complicated, and Rider does not simply own the land to do with as they might choose without consequences.

As a historic business college, the upper administration gives less intrinsic value to the training of musicians than it does for the training of business, science or technology leaders. As a result, they feel morally and economically justified in raiding our assets, our programs, our campus, our endowment, our name and reputation and purposefully disappearing our school to attempt to fix their own deficient leadership and oversight of the programs on the Lawrenceville campus. 

How would you feel?

As of just a few years ago, WCC was humming right along with capacity enrollment, experiencing record-breaking artistic achievement, turning in modest budget surpluses and cultivating a robust campus community of elite and dedicated musicians working to continue our school’s mission.

Then, the Board of Trustees hired Dell’Omo, and together they have been purposefully sabotaging our college, then blaming us for our own decreases in enrollment and gaslighting us emotionally and professionally to attempt to keep us in line.

So, because we’re musicians and not engineers, our endowment is the board’s prized warchest and our land is intrinsically and historically valuable, the Rider Board of Trustees, Dell’Omo and Fredeen (with the unfathomable support of our own Dean Marshall Onofrio) is perpetuating the raiding of our century-old public trust and is in direct violation of the merger agreement that governs Rider’s stewardship of WCC. What they are attempting to do is morally and legally corrupt. And, they’re attempting to pull this off, hastily, within a year, to attempt to short circuit the legal process before it can stop them.

We are angry. We are disillusioned. We are steadfast in our opposition to this move. It is our hope that Rider’s leadership comes to their senses and returns our special relationship to one of trust and actual collaboration instead of their greedy cash and land grab. In the absence of a change of course, we call on the Board leadership, Dell’Omo, Fredeen and WCC Onofrio to resign, now, in disgrace, and give us the chance to start to rebuild our school, our reputation and our broken souls. 

Leonard Bernstein once was quoted as saying, “Westminster Choir College supplies a great measure of beauty to a world that needs it badly.” With all that is going on in the world, and with Westminster alums (in classrooms, churches and concert halls) and recordings reaching millions of people every week, our world continues to need our art and voices badly. Rider is our steward. Either steward us properly or get out of the way. Know this…WCC knows how to do two things: cultivate world-class music and people, and survive to do it the next day. Our home is in Princeton. We will not be moved. 

Dr. R. Douglas Helvering

Master of Music – ‘02

Adjunct Associate Professor of Music Composition and Theory

Coordinator of the Conducting, Organ, and Sacred Music Department of Westminster Choir College

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